SAM FRICK: Previewing the area semistate matchups

Snider’s Uriah Buchanan leaps for the final touchdown of the night in the Panthers’ August 18 win at Warren Central. (Photo by Gary Hale)

Here we are, a week away from the state championship games in Indianapolis.

Who from the area punches their ticket? We break down each matchup.

CLASS 5A: #6 Merrillville (10-2) at #2 Snider (11-1), 7:30 p.m.

Overall Series: Snider leads 2-0

For the first time since they met in the 2012 semistate, these two teams will clash in hopes that 2023 is the year that they are able to hoist a state championship.

The Pirates of Merrillville are coming off a 24-20 win over Duneland Conference rival Valparaiso. This is a team with plenty of weapons across the board, averaging over 30 points per game. Merrillville is has never won a semistate game in its history, going 0-8. There was no semistate round when the Pirates won their long state championship in 1976.

As for Snider, it is coming off a dramatic 19-18 road win over Mishawaka thanks to a 45-yard field goal from Mang Tang as time expired. Coach Kurt Tippmann described this moment as one filled with amazement and a wave of emotions. He also could not help but describe how hard it must have felt for Mishawaka to lose in that fashion, having felt that same way a year ago.

“Our players have worked extremely hard to get back to this point,” said Tippmann. “Last year’s score (22-21) has been posted on our weight room wall for 365 days, (with it) being a constant motivator to do the work to get back to this point and to accomplish the task.”

Last year, Snider saw its opportunity snatched from the jaws of victory when Valparaiso rallied to beat the Panthers in overtime. Valparaiso went on to win the Class 5A state championship. Snider enters with a record of 7-10 overall in semistate games.

For Snider to have a chance to get back to Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since 2015, it will need to continue to have a strong all-around game up front and in the running attack. On defense, its 13.2 points-per-game average will be tested by an athletic Merrillville squad.

“In every game of magnitude, turnovers will be a big factor,” Tippmann said. “Special teams and field position will also be big determiners. We have to be better in the red zone area on offense, as well as getting touchdowns instead of field goals.

“Defensively, we can’t give up easy scores. (It) should be fun.”

CLASS 4A: #11 Northwood (11-2) at #10 Leo (11-2), 7 p.m.

Overall Series: Leo leads 4-0

Once upon a time, these two teams played in the same sectional along with the likes of Northridge, Angola, DeKalb, Columbia City, DeKalb and East Noble. Now, these two tradition-rich programs meet one win away from a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium.

For Coach Nate Andrews’ squad, this has been a bounceback of a postseason after losing to Northridge a year ago despite an undefeated regular season. This year’s run the deepest for the Panthers since they got to state in 2016.

Traditionally, the “Black Crunch” are a team that pounds the football at will. But the most recent Northwood teams have shown a lethal passing attack led by senior quarterback Owen Roeder (3,082 yards passing and 36 touchdowns) and senior wide receiver Nitro Tuggle (82 catches, 1,245 yards, and 16 touchdowns), who is committed to two-time defending national champion Georgia. But the Panthers are at their best when they are mixing in a running attack to keep defenses from keying on Tuggle and fellow senior Jojo Edmond, who lines up on both sides of the ball and is committed to Michigan as a defensive back.

In last week’s 38-14 win over last year’s state finalist New Prairie, the Panthers threw for 365 yards and limited a run-dominant New Prairie team offensively. That lethal passing attack will be a tremendous challenge for Leo. Northwood is 6-5 all-time in semistate games.

The Lions are playing in just their third semistate in program history and first since 2011. In the 41-7 win over Mississinewa in the regional, the Lions dominated with the short amount of drives they had as they scored a TD on six of their eight drives.

However, a defense that continues to get the job done has been somewhat lost in the shuffle. Leo held a dominant Ole Miss offense that averaged 33.9 points per game to just 174 yards of total offense.

“To play that way at that level of the tournament is great,” said Doerffler about last week. “We were very proud of our guys and their efforts last Friday. We were able to get a lead early and build on that lead, which was great to see. It definitely doesn’t get any easier this week though with NorthWood coming into town.”

Leo’s success obviously starts with the play of junior Brock Schott and senior Kaden Hurst (Ohio commit). However, Dearious Carter has transformed himself into a new beast since the postseason began. He is averaging 7.5 yards per carry in the playoffs and in the win last week returned a second-half kickoff 94 yards for a score.

Doerffler calls this Northwood team a dangerous one with size, speed, and obviously physicality.

“They obviously have a ton of talent and that really stands out on film,” said Doerffler. “These guys can make plays all over the field. As a team, NorthWood really plays hard and physical. We are going to have to match their physicality at the line of scrimmage and contain their playmakers.”

As Doerffler mentioned, it will come down to how well the defense is able to contain the passing game and being able to pressure Roeder. Offensively, Doerffler said that taking care of the football is essential. Leo is looking to make history, and for it to make an inaugural trip to the state finals, it will to play nearly flawless.

“We will need to play with great toughness and togetherness,” said Doerffler. “We do need to play as the aggressor. Nothing is going to be given to us, and we must go out and earn it.

“But at the end of the day, this is still just a football game between two really good teams. So, we need to enjoy the atmosphere, have some fun, and compete.”

Bishop Luers’ Jacob Felger and Wes Javins celebrate a play during November 10’s regional title game against Bluffton. (Photo by John Felts)

CLASS 2A: #10 Lafayette Central Catholic (10-3) @ #7 Bishop Luers (10-3), 7:30 p.m.

Overall Series: First Meeting

We can 100 percent guarantee that the Knights will play for a state championship. All jokes aside, these are two of the most successful football programs in IHSAA history.

Central Catholic has a strong resume of state championships, winning eight of them in its history. It is 10-3 in semistate games overall. However, these Knights have never won this round in Class 2A.

Central Catholic started the season 1-3 before rattling off nine straight wins, including a 22-0 win over LaVille in regionals.

Meanwhile, Bishop Luers, with a IHSAA record of 11 state championships, has its eyes on making a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since 2020. This is Bishop Luers’ 22nd semistate appearance where they hold an all-time record of 16-5. The Knights lost in last year’s semistate to Andrean.

Coach Kyle Lindsay and his team had to overcome a lot of obstacles in last week’s regional, a 15-7 victory over Bluffton. As one would expect, it was their experience and belief that kept them strong in persevering for the win.

“Our kids were able to maintain composure and confidence going in and coming out of the half,” said Lindsay. “Defensively, we played a complete, physical football game, holding them to 83 yards on 34 carries (12 for -9 in the second half). The offense did just enough in the third quarter to move the ball and extend the lead.”

When you look at where Luers was at the start of this season when it lost its first two games, many believed this Knights team was cooked. But over the course of the season, it’s been a team filled with resilience highlighted by a co-SAC championship and sectional and regional crowns. Lindsay said this team has grown to care for each other and their hard work is reaping benefits.

The Knights have a tough matchup against Central Catholic, which are led by junior gunslinger Bobby Metzger (2,758 yards and 33 touchdowns).

“Their QB has a strong arm, but even more important to his game is his pocket awareness and agility…” said Lindsay. “He’s excellent at buying time for his receivers when dropping back to pass.

“I believe the strength of this LCC team however is their defense. They have a lot of length at all three levels and are very disruptive with their speed and athleticism up front.”

The strength in particular is at linebacker and defensive back. Nick Page and Brinn Robbins have combined for 226 total tackles. Ryan Delgatto and Albert Schwartz have a total of 20 sacks.

For Luers, it will have the challenge of playing against a team that showcases a dangerous passing game with a lot of screens and a physical line. It will come down to how disciplined the Luers line plays and how well the secondary contains their athleticism. On offense, Gio Jimenez will be a key point of emphasis on the ground in addition to his defensive assignments. But this game will greatly test quarterback Kohen McKenzie.

Lindsey’s message heading into this game is to keep working hard. The fact is that this team has yet to put together a complete game in all three phases of the games.

“We made enough mistakes last Friday to stay motivated to improve, and the kids are excited to put it all together this Friday.” said Lindsay.

CLASS 1A: North Judson (9-4) @ #2 Adams Central (13-0), 7:30 p.m.

Overall Series: Adams Central leads 2-0

During the Jets’ two state finals meetings with Indianapolis Lutheran, they eliminated North Judson in semistate, with last year’s game a lopsided 35-0 win.

With Adams Central’s impressive 29-0 win over No. 3-ranked Carroll (Flora), the Jets find themselves in their 16th semistate game and first at home in seven years. The last time Adams Central won a semistate game at home was 2000, when the Jets hoisted their lone state championship.

Coach Michael Mosser said his team’s main reason for postseason success has come with their ability to control the line of scrimmage.

Last week, North Judson pulled off a rather shocking 44-26 win over No. 5 Park Tudor thanks to a 115-yard, four-touchdown performance from mobile quarterback Jesiah McDaniel, who Mosser says is “fast and hard to take down.”

Mosser also keyed on Brock Benson and Kole Wilcox as two players the Jets’ defense will have to tackle well. Over the course of the season, the Jets have been the hunted while dealing with injuries, expectations and the goal of reaching their third straight state championship game.

“A long season is definitely a challenge to keep them all focused and healthy, but our guys have done a really good job of staying focused and determined,” said Mosser. “They have goals and they want to achieve those goals. To do that, we must practice well and play hard. I believe we have done that so far and hope to continue that mentality this week.”

The ultimate goal of course is to bring state championship No. 2 to Monroe. While we don’t want to look too far ahead, there’s a strong possibility of a third-consecutive meeting with top-ranked Indianapolis Lutheran. Despite a couple one-possession wins over South Putnam (sectionals) and Providence (regionals), the Saints are the clear favorites to win this week’s game at Sheridan.

For AC to make this rematch a reality, the Jets need to stay sharp and stay focused of the task at hand.

“We must be disciplined and efficient,” said Mosser. “The kids must do as they are coached. They have to play hard and physical.

“North Judson is a very worthy opponent.  They too have played in big games and they want to knock us out and go to the state. We must counter that as best we can. We must play with confidence.”

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